One of the best things about birding are those random encounters, the complete serendipity of the hobby. Some of the best “birding” moments even happen when you’re not birding, with a chance encounter. Friday, April 26th, was one of those days for me. I had a conference Friday afternoon and Saturday in Pierre. I left Brandon (our home) at 4:00 AM, as I wanted to do a bit of birding before the conference started at noon. The plan was to arrive at the Big Bend Dam area around dawn, and then drive through the Fort Pierre National Grasslands before heading to the conference.
Things were going as planned, and I was driving south of Fort Thompson (next to Big Bend dam) a little after the sun came up. The water was very high on the Missouri to my left, with flooded trees, grasslands, and wetlands all along the river. Amidst all the flooded land I saw quite a few American White Pelicans, lounging in groups of between 10 and 20. With so many large, white birds in close proximity on the river, I wasn’t too excited when I saw a large white bird flying parallel to the highway, about 40 feet up and a hundred yards or so in front of me. Big white bird…black wings tips…it’s one of the pelicans.
As I continued to drive closer, the bird continued following the general course of the road. Upon getting closer, I had a chill up my spine and one serious case of goose bumps…this was no mere Pelican. It was a lone Whooping Crane, RIGHT in front of me. I held back and watched it continue to fly in front of me for a moment before thinking…nobody is going to believe me! I have to get a photo!! However, when you’re behind a bird in flight that’s moving away from your position, it’s not an ideal situation! I fumbled with the camera with the thought of perhaps just trying to capture a confirmation “butt shot”, but as I grabbed the camera, the Whooping Crane swerved to its right, heading up over a ridge, and out of sight.
Gone! I’d just seen a Whooping Crane! I still had chills and goosebumps, but alas the bird was gone and I had no proof of the sighting! Hoping that he was just moving to one of the nearby corn fields to feed, I started looking for a side road that went in the general direction of the bird. I found a small gravel road, and followed it to the east, hoping to spot the bird in a nearby field. The road was only about 1/4 mile long, and ended at a cemetery. As I approached the cemetery, I looked for a splash of white in the nearby fields…and…THERE! It was there! It was a LONG distance out, probably 1/4 mile or more, but there in a field near the cemetery, the Whooping Crane had landed and was calmly walking about and foraging.
As I approached the cemetery I saw a very fresh mound where there’d clearly been a very recent burial, so I felt a little weird entering the cemetery itself. I parked along the road and instead headed for the fenceline next to the big field. There was a big center pivot in the harvested corn field, and the Whooping Crane was calmly foraging below it. I grabbed the camera and decided to at least try to get some documentation shots. With my 100-400mm lens, the bird was but a small white blob in the middle of the frame, but the photos were completely recognizable as a Whooping Crane. Over my previous elation-then-heartbreak-at-not-getting-a-photo vibe, I was now satisfied! I’d SEEN A WHOOPING CRANE! I had photos that documented the bird. I went back to my pickup, grabbed a coat (it was a COLD morning), and sat down and just watched him through binoculars for about half an hour as he fed in the corn field.
At one point in the corn field, the Whooping Crane gave a few vocalizations that I could hear even from my distance spot. He honked/croaked/”whooped” a couple of more times, shook his tail, and took flight. That’s that, I thought! But what a GREAT morning spent watching this bird. I stood up, watching the crane take flight, fully expecting it to fly…away somewhere. Instead, it lifted off, banked, and started heading back towards the river. Back towards my position! Now, I’m about the last person you’d want in, say, a basketball game, with the game on the line, and a 3-pointer needed to win it. I get way too nervous. As the crane banked and headed towards me, the chills and goosebumps returned, and with it, shaking hands! I had the camera ready! The bird was getting closer! But as much as my hands were shaking I wasn’t sure I was going to get ANY kind of decent shot.
At some point, I think the crane saw me, because it deviated course slightly. It had been headed right towards me, but it moved to a course that took it a bit further out from me. Still, it was within range that I thought I could grab some halfway decent photos. I furiously clicked away as the bird passed to my east, then as it went south of me, and turned west towards the river.
I returned to my pickup, shivering from the cold, but more from the experience! I gave a quick scan through my photos I’d just taken. As I suspected, many of them were pretty darned blurry, probably due to my shaking hands! But I had a couple that at least were clearly recognizable as a Whooping Crane. I headed back down the gravel road to the highway, and thought I’d give one more look for the bird. It didn’t take long to find him. He’d landed in a small flooded grassy area between the highway and the river, and stood out like a sore thumb. Again, it was quite a ways out, but closer than the encounter in the corn field. I pulled over on the side of the highway, moved over to my passenger seat closest to where the bird was, and…ended up sitting there for an hour!
For an hour, the Whooping Crane stayed in the same tiny wet spot, surrounded by Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintails, and other ducks that were using the spot. He was certainly relaxed and not worried about my presence on the road (probably 200+ yards away?), nor the passing cars. I felt a little odd seeing the cars that were passing me every minute or so. HEY, I wanted to shout…WHOOPING CRANE!! ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME EXPERIENCE HERE! COME LOOK!! But no one else seemed to care about the Whooping Crane, or the bird nut sitting in the passenger seat with his camera and binoculars trained on the bird for an hour. I casually switched between trying to grab some more long-distance photos, and simply watching the bird through the binoculars.
Finally, I realized I needed to get going or I was going to be late for my conference. When I left (around 9:00 AM), the bird was still hanging out in the same wetland by the river. I never saw any other bird it tried to associate with…no other Whooping Cranes, no Sandhill Cranes around. I saw no bands on its legs, so I assumed this was a wild born bird. It seemed perfectly healthy and happy, flying around and foraging on the ground with no problems.
Two hours in my life I certainly won’t forget! The “feature photo” at the top is by far the clearest photo I was able to get as the bird flew past after leaving the corn field and heading back towards the river. Below are more photos from the encounter.